Tuesday, June 6, 2017


Years ago, I participated in a book club discussion regarding The Sunflower, a slim volume of essays that addressed the question of whether it would have been appropriate for a Jewish prisoner in the Holocaust to forgive a dying Nazi guard who was seeking forgiveness for his role in the Nazi atrocities. I was new to the book club and didn’t say much during the discussion, but now I wish I had, because the question addressed by the book struck me as a very odd one.

More recently a friend and I aired some differences of opinion.  Words were spoken and regretted.  At some point my friend asked for my forgiveness.  I was probably being petty, but at the time I declined to do that.  We both walked away, and for a long time we avoided the topic that had given rise to the argument because we both knew that discussion would just lead to a revival of our disagreement and hard feelings.  More recently we talked and I realized that I no longer harbored any hard feelings toward my friend.  My friend has not renewed her request for forgiveness, but we both understand that I have forgiven her.

Forgiveness seems like a straightforward concept, but I find myself struggling to understand it. As a result, I have wound up with a couple of questions the answers to which I am still trying to clarify.

Is forgiveness behavioral or internal?  Sometimes we make a public declaration of forgiveness, often at the request of the person asking for forgiveness.  But for me this is different from actual forgiveness.  I think of forgiveness as a change in one’s attitude toward the person being forgiven.  If a person asks forgiveness, he is acknowledging a wrongdoing, and that acknowledgement can contribute to a change in our attitude toward him.  And probably all of us have at some point made a public declaration of forgiveness, even when internally we have not gotten over the matter that we are being asked to forgive.  My sense is that such declarations are often driven by our affection for that other person that we realize is more important than whatever disagreement we may have had.  So has forgiveness occurred when we say it, or does it occur when we have actually put the disagreement behind us?  And what do we mean by putting it behind us?  After all, we haven’t forgotten what happened.

Is forgiveness voluntary or involuntary?  Is forgiveness a choice or is it something that simply happens?  Here I have to point out that as a philosophical matter I do not believe that we have free will.  In that sense I am not asking whether forgiveness is the exercise of free will on our part (it is not) but whether we feel our forgiveness to be voluntary, as something that we choose.  My personal experience is that I do not “will” myself to forgive others.  It doesn’t work that way for me.  Instead, forgiveness is something that just occurs.  I simply come to realize that I no longer have that feeling of animus toward the other person.  Do others experience forgiveness the same way, or am I “different”?

 As I indicated, I find the concept of forgiveness to be enigmatic.  Our social order has created rituals regarding how forgiveness is treated on a public basis.  But I find that, for me, there is a difference between the public act and what happens internally.  And I am wondering if others feel the same way.

© 2017 John M. Phillips

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